Can Dale Jr. overcome Ford's dominance at Michigan?
June 14, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
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BROOKLYN, Mich. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going for back-to-back wins, and that's all some folks need to know about the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
There are, of course, more story lines that will play out on the two-mile track located in the Irish Hills.
But the fortunes of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ most popular driver are certainly a hot topic. Made even hotter by his most recent win, which came just at week ago at Pocono Raceway.
It was his second victory of the 2014 season, and matched his total win output since donning the Hendrick Motorsports logo in 2008.
He has only two seasons with more than two wins, both while racing for Dale Earnhardt Inc. In 2001, he won three times and he took six checkered flags in ’04.
In a season that’s seen no one team break out and dominate, can the son of a seven-time champion exceed his fans' heavy expectations?
"Definitely, that’s new," the 39-year-old Earnhardt Jr. admitted on Friday at MIS. "That's the new conversation topic for us, but I just want to win the next one.
"We have so much fun winning and going to Victory Lane, and last week was so much fun with the feeling that you have inside and that you have for several hours after that.
"It’s like the best feeling ever. And I want to do it again; I want to do it now, this weekend."
Earnhardt will start third. He is one of 14 drivers in the 43-car field that have won at Michigan. Also among them is Kevin Harvick, who set a blistering pace with a track qualifying record lap of 204.557 mph on Friday.
But fast cars haven't always resulted in success for Harvick, competing out of the Stewart-Haas Racing camp. Twice a winner this season (at Phoenix and Darlington), Harvick's No. 4 Chevrolet has been slowed on several occasions this season by one issue or another.
If the setbacks are wearing on the driver, he's been able to keep it to himself.
"In my career, I've won a lot of races that I probably shouldn't have … and lost a lot that (I) should have won," Harvick said.
"But you just have to keep plugging along week by week."
Both the good and the bad are only temporary.
"Monday morning, you'd better forget what you did last week because you've got to worry about the week coming," he said.
The top of the starting lineup is heavy with teams carrying the General Motors banner – four of the top five and six of the top 10. But Michigan's long been considered a Ford track, a fact to which even the GM brass will occasionally, if somewhat grudgingly, admit.
The last three races here have seen Ford drivers in Victory Lane. Joey Logano of Team Penske won the last time out, while Roush Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle won the August stop in 2012 and the June race of ’13.
Ford and, for a time Mercury, drivers have won more than half of the 89 Cup races contested at MIS.
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 series champ, Team Penske teammate Logano and Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards have put Ford in the winner's circle this year.
"Certainly the Penske guys are running well with very similar cars," Roush Fenway Racing co-owner Jack Roush said Friday, "and we've just got to get back to where we need to be.
"This business cycles. We’ve had times when we've been the cars to beat for an extended period of time to everybody's frustration, and now we're just struggling to get back to where we need to be."
Richard Petty Motorsports' Aric Almirola had the fastest Ford in qualifying, and will start fourth.
Toyota drivers, winless since Denny Hamlin's victory at Talladega, will take the green flag from a bit deeper in the field, with Brian Vickers (Michael Waltrip Racing) leading the charge from 10th. Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth, second in points, will start 21st.